The indulgence of pickled rope baloney
April 30th, 2014
03:15 PM ET
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Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of Southern food. Silas House is the author of five novels, three plays, and one book of nonfiction. He is the NEH Chair of Appalachian Studies at Berea College. He wrote this essay for the Appalachian-themed issue #51 of the SFA's Gravy quarterly.

Dot’s Grocery, owned by my aunt, was the community center of tiny Fariston, Kentucky: a therapist’s office, sometimes a church, and—always—a storytelling school. Everyone gathered there to gossip and to seek the sage kitchen wisdom of Dot. She kept a Virginia Slim permanently perched in her fuchsia-lipsticked mouth and latched her steely blue-eyed gaze on her customers while they spilled their guts and sought her advice. A few times I witnessed prayer services there. The epicenter of a largely Holiness community was hard-pressed to escape that, after all. There were always the big tales, swirling around like the twisting smoke of the regulars’ cigarettes (in my memory, all of them smoked, everyone).

Looking back, the stories are what matter the most. But when I was a child in the 1980s my favorite things were: the cakes-and-candy rack, the old-timey Coke cooler with the silver sliding doors on top, and the huge jar of pickled baloney that sat on the counter next to the cash register. Beside it were a loose roll of paper towels, a box of wax paper, a sleeve or two of Premium saltines, and a large Old Hickory–brand knife.

Cutting pickled baloney was a rite of passage, usually reserved for children who were past the age of ten. That may sound young to wield a butcher knife, but we were country children who had attended hog killings, watched the dressing of squirrels, cleaned our own fish, and stood in chairs by the stove so we could learn to cook.

The pickled baloney, submerged in vinegar, was one corkscrew of delicious processed meat. I did not know then, and wouldn’t have cared, that baloney is usually made up of the afterthoughts of pork or beef: organs, trimmings, and the like. All I knew was that it was scrumptious when paired with an ice-cold Dr Pepper and a handful of saltines. Dot indulged me with treats when I came to the store, and I usually asked if, instead of getting a free banana Moon Pie or Bit-O-Honey, I could opt for pickled baloney. “Why sure,” Dot always answered, expelling two wisps of blue smoke with her words.

Besides the taste, which my Uncle Dave said was “so good you had to pat your foot to eat it,” there was the added bonus of brandishing the knife and sawing off my own piece, proving I was not a little boy anymore. I was an eleven-year-old eater of pickled baloney.

Pickled baloney was a delicacy in the rural stores of Appalachia, showcased right on the counter, where no one could miss it. Most people headed straight for the pickled baloney jar when they were sitting for a spell at Dot’s. Others eyed the jar with desire, knowing they couldn’t afford to add it to their bill. Dot’s thrived in that last period of the jottemdown store, a small community grocery where local folks could buy on credit. The name referred to the fact that such stores kept a spiral-bound notebook on the counter to “jot down” purchases. Each customer had their own page and each month what they owed was totaled up. They came in on payday and paid off their debts to Dot. She seldom turned anyone down for more credit, even if they owed her for months on end. After all, she had opened the store as a single mother supporting two daughters.

Aunt Dot
Dot Kelsey in the mid-1970s

Many people I know now scoff at the very idea of eating baloney, much less pickled baloney. They do not understand that the purchase of such a thing was an extravagance, an indulgence. This was a different time. A different world. I knew no one who went to the movies or shopped on a whim. These luxuries required a long period of saving. They had to be planned far in advance.

We were the progeny of people who had been very, very poor. And although I’ve painted the hamlet of Fariston as a romantic, bucolic place where people had the live-long day to gather around a woodstove in a little store to tell stories, the truth is much more complex than all that. This was a place where poverty existed alongside great wealth.

A few yards from Dot’s Grocery was a sprawling trailer park occupied by people who worked minimum-wage jobs in fast-food restaurants or at the Dollar General. Dogs meandered about the dirt yards, and children played on the porches while their fathers slept after working third shift or their mothers hung out lines of clothes that flapped in the wind.

Just past the trailer park loomed the huge mansion owned by a coal baron and built to resemble South Fork from TV’s Dallas. Its opulence proclaimed, “We made it. You did not.” The house was a few miles from the massive strip mine that destroyed that part of the county. The riches from that mine built the manor, but no matter: The family had a three-car garage. And twelve-foot pillars flanked the front porch.

I am sure that the people in the South Fork mansion didn’t serve pickled baloney hors d’oeuvres at their parties. But for people raised like my parents, pickled baloney was a symbol of attainment.

When she bought one of the gallon jars, my mother would return from the grocery with a giddy excitement. As children, she and my father had never been allowed such indulgences. Both grew up in the sort of poverty people always associate with Appalachia. Still, they were quick to tell you they had never been hungry. Country people were good at providing food for themselves, whether by growing it, bartering for it, or making it stretch. Snacks were rare and sniffed of affluence.

By the time I was a child my parents had worked so long and so hard they had firmly rooted us in the middle class. We did not have a house that looked like J.R.’s and Sue Ellen’s, but we had recently left the trailer park and moved into a small five-room house with a grassy yard dotted by pink dogwood trees. The buying of pickled baloney, which might be considered the lowest of foods, meant something to my family and our community.

Every once in a while I get a terrific craving for pickled baloney. I eat it with a strange mixture of guilt, because I know what’s in it, and delicious nostalgia for a place and time that is gone forever. Food is more than merely taste or nourishment. In Appalachia, food is memory and heritage.

Today, when I cut a hunk of meat off that corkscrew, when I draw in the sharp fragrance of vinegar as I peel off the baloney casing and take a bite, I remember the customers in Dot’s Grocery. Their joys and sorrows, always on full display. I recall afternoons spent with my father after he woke up, before he left to work the third shift. I remember my Aunt Dot, gone now, and the way she cared for the whole community, provided a place for them, jotted down their purchases, and sometimes wadded up a whole sheet of debt when she realized that family was doing all they could to support themselves. That way of life is gone now, and I miss it so badly, in all of its awfulness and beauty.

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soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Scott

    Try it, you'll like it!

    May 6, 2014 at 7:03 am |
  2. Thinking things through

    Well-written, and fascinating.

    I suddenly have an unexpected but real hankering to try pickled rope baloney.

    May 2, 2014 at 7:09 am |
  3. Teresa Smith

    I married a man from Knott County in 1986. He grew up just past the mouth of Wolf Pen. My mother-in-law would buy Fischer's Rope Bologna, something I had never eaten. My in-laws and a few of the neighbors would get the jar eaten up and then came the thing they all seemed to be waiting for, using the vinegar from the pickled bologna to make pickled eggs. Mrs. Smith would hard boil three dozen eggs or so and add them to the vinegar along with beet juiced from home canned beets. I had never heard of pickled eggs, being a "northerner" from Mason County, Kentucky. They sounded horrible! After fifteen years of resisting, my spouse talked me into trying one. I was right, it was horrible. Never once did it cross my mind that those pink eggs floating in that jar were sweet. I couldn't finish the egg and my husband finished it for me. I talked to a neighbor and he said his momma never put beet juice in them and that hers were better, not sweet. I learned to like the sour, unsweetened pickled eggs. I don't eat rope bologna. I now make my own version of pickling vinegar with other additions that I like, such as green olives. I hard boiled 56 eggs on Monday and I'll be eating the first one next Monday.

    May 1, 2014 at 12:26 pm |
  4. kobrakai7474

    I grew up in the exact same time frame under similar circumstances (child of newly middle class family who were themselves quite poor in their youth in a town that featured very wealthy folks alongside the poorest of the poor), just in a very different part of the country. No, we didn't have pickled baloney in my neck of the woods (truth be told, I'd never heard of it before reading this article), but we did have our own symbol of having "made it". A couple of times per year, when all the bills were paid and if my dad had worked a goodly share of overtime that week, we would splurge on a Friday night and eat "panzarottis". They are native to Southern New Jersey and were basically an inside out pizza that was deep fried. Today, just thinking about one, makes my arteries clog a bit (along with making my mouth water), but, back then, there was nothing better on this planet and there was nothing that made me feel more like saying, "yup, my parents must be doing pretty well these days". To this day, a panzarotti remains a guilty pleasure and having one is always a highlight of my trips home. To be honest, I am not sure if I still love them because they taste so darn good or just because they bring back such cherished childhood memories. I suspect it is a lot of both.

    May 1, 2014 at 10:49 am |
  5. Frank

    On man that takes me back to Georgia. My parents came up poor dirt farmers during the depression and worked their way into the middle class. But they never forgot how to make a meal out of pennies. I still get a craving sometimes for collard greens and fat back. mmm-mmm

    May 1, 2014 at 12:36 am |
    • Kat Kinsman

      That sounds delicious on a whole lot of levels. And I hope you get to taste that soon.

      May 1, 2014 at 12:59 am |
  6. troyison

    I was born in Lynch and raised in Line Fork. While this story is a thought provoker, the flatlanders in Fariston aren't Appalachian. In Line Fork, you couldn't afford the jar, let alone the meat in it. Still can't. Go there now and all you'll see is the poorest place in America. Hell, we were rich, we had a two holer...

    April 30, 2014 at 11:19 pm |
  7. deedeguerra

    I read most of the comments and dident see any comments about music. With what little I know know, I thought most people played instruments fiddle, bandolin,banjo and such. Do any of you ave memories of that? What is that kind of music called hillbillie, or old timey, bluegrass ?

    April 30, 2014 at 9:31 pm |
  8. mary harrison

    We seem to worship riches and owning "things". But what riches really means is having God, family and friends.

    April 30, 2014 at 9:31 pm |
    • deedeguerra

      So true! All you can take is good deeds and bad deeds. I have never seen a funeral with a moving van.

      April 30, 2014 at 9:37 pm |
  9. B Randon

    That life is gone for the author due to both adulthood and upward movement into the middle class, but millions more live in this type of poverty and don't get out. I think it there are great points to be nostalgic about: the slower-paced world, the freedoms of country life, and people taking time to get to know their neighbors. However, as a child you are buffered from the uncertainty of the next paycheck, the lack of funds for retirement, the fear of illness, and the poisoned land left by the coal company. As an adult, these become more apparent. I lived in and hated cities, and would not want to live in one again, but there is a cancer in some parts of rural America that is spreading. It is in the meth that folks use and it is in the bitter people that want to destroy the federal government because of the evil welfare recipients, all the while not telling folks out loud at their anti-government rallies that they pay reduced or $0 income tax, and receive government benefits. And it is in the people that sit in the big house on the hill lording over all in their valley, looking down their noses at the useless sheep that they waste their tax money on.

    April 30, 2014 at 9:28 pm |
    • VladT

      Thanks for turning a sweet memory about a food indulgence I have never heard of into your own little political ranting soapbox.

      Let me guess.....too many people in the townsquare ignoring your "The end is near" sign?

      May 1, 2014 at 3:09 am |
  10. mary harrison

    I loved this story! I grew up in a small, southern town. We had a garden, hogs, chickens and my dad hunted a lot, and we fished. Kids played outdoors. I did not know I was poor. Everyone looked out for everyone's kids. I know those times are gone. I wish people understood what riches really is.

    April 30, 2014 at 9:27 pm |
  11. Jeff

    Wonderful story. I too grew up in small-town Kentucky – for me in the 60's. My parents grew up in depression era and had nothing. They were very proud of what they had by the time i came along. I never knew that we were poor. Pickled baloney would be what my Day considered a waste but we did have Vienna Sausage (that he pronounced Vie Nanna sausage) as the occasional snack. Split in half on crackers and shared between three people (Mom would let the rest of us indulge) it was good stuff. Thanks for the memory.

    April 30, 2014 at 9:26 pm |
  12. Percy

    That is beautiful writing. Thank you Silas House. I too know of a special person in my life who was just like your aunt Dot. Her name was Grace K. Myers. We are blessed to have known caring loving people in our lives.

    April 30, 2014 at 8:45 pm |
  13. Bob

    Great story. If you liked this there is a book you might like to read. It set in rural Iowa and is about life during the depression. The title is "Little Heathens".

    April 30, 2014 at 8:23 pm |
  14. Steven J. Schultz

    A sincere and meaningful story that reflects the innocence of the past, the cultures of Appalachia, and the beauty of simplicity. It doesn't have to be a complex Hollywood production to convey deeper meaning. Well done, Silas House and CNN. Thank you for having the decency to treat the people of Appalachia with respect and dignity.

    April 30, 2014 at 8:16 pm |
  15. wade

    A can of sardines (mustard, if possible) and saltines was our treat with granddaddy.

    April 30, 2014 at 8:02 pm |
  16. AB

    Sometimes I read a story and scoff at the writer's usage of the word "community." This is not one of those times. Very well done. I was immediately transported to childhood and the tailgate of an old pickup truck where my grandpa and his friend sat listening to their foxhounds run while I waited patiently for the big block of bologna and the saltines to be brought out. My grandpa would pull out his pocket knife and cut me off a piece the size of your hand and then hand it to me with some crackers. As soon as this posts, I am off to the store to buy bologna. Thanks Silas. And Dot...

    April 30, 2014 at 7:14 pm |
  17. Robert

    I searched the internet and identified a number of brands of pickled bologna. Can you share the brand of pickled bologna that Dot sold in her store? Might as well start with the best first. Thanks...

    April 30, 2014 at 7:07 pm |
    • Silas House

      Fisher's was the brand we always ate.

      April 30, 2014 at 7:15 pm |
  18. bill

    thanks for that. i grew up in the 60's – and i would go back in a heatbeat – people had hearts then.

    April 30, 2014 at 6:17 pm |
  19. momrobot

    I enjoyed this. Ever tried boiled peanuts? Took me forever to try them when I moved to SC because it sounds perfectly disgusting. Turns out, they're awesome. Get them cajun if you can. I might have to try pickled bologna, although I have to admit it sounds iffy. Thanks for sharing this story.

    April 30, 2014 at 5:45 pm |
  20. KnightofMalta

    I can almost assure you that most of those men would say they honestly earned their livings though, unsupported by the government often, and oh so proud of it. It didn't matter if the guy up the street was more wealthy then them, they didn't think when they saw a fat man beside a thin one that the fat man got that way by exploiting the thin one. Rather they were proud that they could work and make a living off of that work, and if they could be successful in that manner, they were content.

    There is an old gas station store here in Appalachia that is near my grandparents house. The man who works there sells the gas and some snack foods and other various items store. Its a nice place, and there are still people who gather there and have been gathering for years there to talk and share the stories of the day. Poverty as we call it, simply not having some luxuries as they call it, so very different things.

    April 30, 2014 at 4:50 pm |
  21. Andrew Greeson

    Great story. I have a lot of the same memories. A little older growing u in the 70's my grandparents ran the local country store as well.The credit notebook and all. They sold everything and anything. When i was young i would walk up after school and get some candy and a coke or the like and I had my own page in the book. I have always felt that that helps raise someone with a respect of money and how to handle yourself.
    Thanks for letting me remember that.

    April 30, 2014 at 4:44 pm |
  22. Paul

    What a great memory. It is important as a society to be able to reflect back in our lives and identify memories that make us happy or just plain nostalgic. This story made me spend time in my crazy day to reflect upon some of the smaller (but important) things in my past....How much richer we become when we have a story like this to tell. Thank you for writing it.

    April 30, 2014 at 4:32 pm |
  23. Rosa Noxious

    I like ham.

    April 30, 2014 at 4:09 pm |
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